In the parlance of the stand-up world, “The Comedian” takes the stage with a tight 15 minutes. Unfortunately, you have to endure the other 104 to enjoy them.
This Robert De Niro passion project wants desperately to find some grace notes in the life of a has-been who’s not ready to give up the spotlight — think “The Wrestler,” only translated to the comedy-club circuit — but like a comic who’s lost his edge, the movie indulges in cheap jokes and even cheaper sentiment in its desperate quest for love.
De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in “The King of Comedy” was a fame-hungry cretin with no performance skills; this time around, he’s Jackie Burke, an aging comic who never managed to match his fame from a decades-old hacky family sitcom called “Eddie’s Home.” Strangers still call him “Eddie” on the street and spout his old catchphrases, but professionally, he’s reduced to playing half-filled comedy clubs in Hicksville (literally — Hicksville, N.Y.) and sharing bills with other old-timers like Jimmie “J.J.” Walker and Brett Butler (playing themselves).
A heckler with a YouTube channel gets physical with Jackie at that show, and the comic winds up doing 30 days behind bars. His long-suffering manager (Edie Falco, underused) tries to get him local gigs while he serves 100 hours of community service at a Manhattan homeless shelter. It’s there that he meets fellow community-servicer Harmony (Leslie Mann), and the two form a tentative friendship. He takes her to the Comedy Cellar (an NYC landmark familiar to viewers of “Louie”) and to his lesbian niece’s wedding, while she drags him to a birthday dinner for her controlling father Mac (Harvey Keitel).
“The Comedian” hints at Jackie’s darker side — his rage at the heckler, his cutting loose his previous manager when the sitcom gig came through, his strained relationship with his brother (Danny DeVito) and sister-in-law (Patti Lupone) — but director Taylor Hackford and a quartet of screenwriters never feel comfortable taking the plunge. Men and women who are funny for a living tend to have a lot of complexity and barely-coiled anger within; Jackie has a bit of a temper, but for the most part, the movie paints him as an all-right Joe. Subsequently, it’s never as interesting as watching any three consecutive episodes of “Bojack Horseman.”
This is also yet another millennial-mocking movie that too often feels hopelessly retrograde, from its scant understanding of viral videos to a climactic moment involving Jackie hosting a game show that’s meant to remind us of “Fear Factor,” which peaked sometime around 2005. (Later we see Jackie appearing at a Friars Club roast, and it’s presented like the old Dean Martin specials of the 1970s rather than their current flash-and-dazzle Comedy Central incarnation.)
De Niro and Mann have a lovely rapport — it helps that the movie is aware that, as a couple, they’re totally age-inappropriate — and there are little moments that pop up throughout and hint at the wittier, livelier movie these people might have made together. There’s a hilarious scene where DeVito scolds De Niro loudly, while muttering in secret that he’s only doing it to get his wife off his back. But then a “Midnight Run” reunion of De Niro and Charles Grodin, as a joke-stealing elder-statesman comic, unfortunately goes nowhere.
In its most desperate moments, “The Comedian” turns to two of the cheapest ways possible to get a laugh: curse words from the very old and from the very young. It’s strained enough to do one in a movie, but here we get a rare two-fer; even worse, the old people are a roomful of Florida retirees forced to sing along as Jackie turns a beloved standard into the scatological “Makin’ Poopie.”
You’ll come away from this film remembering some of the better moments, and a few of the quieter interactions between the characters, but they’ll be mostly overpowered by the stench of everything else.